After a number of somewhat substance-heavy columns recently, I intended to write something light and airy, perhaps cheerful, or even joyful. Nothing confrontational or combative, partisan or provocative; nothing argumentative or angry, disturbing or depressing. Something my friends and readers would be comfortable with, and possibly even find a bit fuzzy and warm.
Well, we all know what they say about good intentions. (Your pick between Johnson’s “Hell is paved with good intentions” and Eliot’s “Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.”) So if you’re looking for something sunny, perhaps put this aside for another day and turn the page.
But the reason I’m ignoring my good intentions has little to do with hell or evil. Rather, it’s because our world isn’t light and airy; our time isn’t cheerful; our present circumstances aren’t joyous. Fuzzy and warm are terrific for fleece pajamas, but otherwise they haven’t been speaking to me recently.
Indeed, our world has taken on a highly partisan and provocative hue; people are disturbed and depressed over the state of society; friends, even family members, are confrontational and combative; anger and arguments fill the air around us and seem to suck out the comfort and contentment so many are seeking.
A good friend recently emailed me saying “I feel tense all the time.” He was talking about the election, but he just as easily could have been talking about the surging coronavirus, the raging fires out west, the disappearance of civility and amity among those who disagree, the never-ending battle for equality and racial justice, the increasing anti-Semitism, the widespread distrust of science, or the waning of democracy in so many countries across the globe.
And for many of us, that feeling of being tense comes from, in addition to the above, something that I’m seriously feeling for the first time in my life — that democracy in our own always flawed but always beloved country is seriously in danger.
We see racial injustice go unpunished time and time again, with little light at the end of the tunnel; we read about actions to suppress people’s right to vote, a right over which so much blood has been shed; we’re shocked by calls from the president to arrest his political opponents and threats not to accept the results of the election; we’re shamed by Shelby County and worried that Roe will be eviscerated; we understand the winks at, and dog whistles to, bigots and haters; we’re angered by constant attacks on the free press as enemies of the people; we’re disturbed by a highly politicized Department of Justice; we’re bothered when legitimate concerns over offensive speech sometimes morph into overreactions and cancel culture; we hear falsehoods proclaimed from the Oval Office and the halls of Congress with pride rather than embarrassment; we’re nervous when peaceful protests sometimes turn into violence and looting. And we’re saddened that too few of our compatriots realize the seriousness of the situation.
We’re also dismayed by the lack of empathy our leadership demonstrates for the hundreds of thousands who have died or are seriously ill from the coronavirus — a plague that descended upon us with no warning, and that has turned our world upside down. We shudder at how seriously it has harmed the global economy and our educational systems; we grieve for those who have lost jobs and homes and businesses; we’re saddened by those isolated and alone; we mourn with those whose loved ones have died and for those who perished without family sitting by their bedside holding their hand. We worry about when, or whether, there will be a vaccine, or if things will ever return to normal.
In our own community, we’re deeply pained by solitary sedarim; yomim tovim spent apart from family; empty shuls and battei midrashot; outside minyanim that may soon have to close their figurative doors as winter approaches; nuclear-family-only funerals; smachot celebrated without the many close family members and friends whose participation always filled to overflowing the cup of joy felt at those festivities.
Yes, we get by. Some have abbreviated davening inside with social distancing or outside in tents; some feel comfort from a Zoom yizkor or enjoy a guitar-accompanied Kabbalat Shabbat. We teach our children in small pods in school with masks and social distancing or by Zoom (or hybrid), and yeshiva education continues. Yes, the important thing is that the baby is healthy, not the brit or simchat bat; that the adolescent boy and girl are growing up with the right values, not the bar or bat mitzvah party; that a couple fell in love and will live their lives together, not the wedding.
All that’s true — but only partially. Sharing family holiday meals, davening next to friends, children learning next to classmates in school, celebrating rites of passage together all are important. They’re part of what helps mold and enrich family and community and personal history. Let’s tweak our behavior because it’s an improvement, not because a pandemic forces us to.
And then there are the small things that are not really small at all. Though there are many educational opportunities on Zoom, we still miss the camaraderie of physically sitting together, meeting new people and making new friends. (Has anyone ever made a friend on Zoom?) We can’t sing together, formally in choral groups or informally around a Shabbat table or in shul; we’re often unable to do small acts of chesed for strangers on the street because of covid restrictions; we can’t grab a lunch with a friend, see a show, or plan an overnight stay at a cozy inn for a short getaway. All these, and so much more, are missing from our lives, and we worry when — if — they’ll return.
And for people of a certain generation, we miss visits to and from our grandchildren — and those unforgettable, indescribably precious hugs, kisses, and cuddles — which have been replaced by Facetime, Zoom, and Skype. Except they haven’t been truly replaced — they can’t be. These personal, intimate interactions are missing from our lives, and we worry when — if — they’ll return.
Kohelet (3:1) teaches that “everything has a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Over the last four years and over the last seven plus months, we’ve had seasons of dying and uprooting, killing and tearing down, weeping and mourning, flinging stones and shunning embracing, losing and silence, hating and war.
I pray that in just a few days we’ll be able to begin to experience, depending on the election’s outcome, seasons of being born and planting, healing and building, laughing and dancing, gathering stones and embracing, winning and speaking — and of loving and peace.